Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lord Dunsany and the development of fantasy fiction.

The influence of others is a force we all experience, and whether it is in science or the arts, it's always interesting to see how people of the same profession affect each other.  You may not be familiar with the writer, Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), but if you read science fiction or fantasy, or enjoy movies based on those genres, you've felt his influence.

Before inheriting his title, Lord Dunsany was Edward Plunkett, or Eddie to his friends.  His family owned land in both Ireland and England, including an estate, a cottage and two castles.  His father died in 1899, so the title passed to Edward.  That same year, England went to war in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).  I think a wealthy peer like Dunsany could probably have avoided military service, but instead he served in that difficult guerrilla conflict.  And his brother joined the British Navy, eventually rising to the rank of admiral. 

Years later, after he was married and had a son, Dunsany returned to military service and fought in the trenches in World War 1.  Although he enjoyed fun activities like cricket, tennis, shooting and hunting, when his country called, Dunsany served.

In the realm of writers, there are some who excel at the novel, others the short story, or poetry.  There are few who are good at more than one of them.  Dunsany wrote short stories, novels, poems and plays--and was good at all of them.  In fact, while he is remembered most as a fantasy writer, he was actually quite successful as a playwright and once had five of his works running concurrently in four capital cities and New York.

Writers are influenced by their dead predecessors, as well as their contemporaries.  And if they're lucky, their works will survive to affect others long after their death.  Dunsany understood this--he knew the power of words to survive the ages and preserve the tales and thoughts of those long past.  He not only helped fellow writers, but also hosted visitors like William Butler Yeats and Rudyard Kipling.

Dunsany's fantasies often have a dream-like quality to them.  His use of language is masterful, and he excelled at naming people and places in his imaginary worlds.  His writing certainly influenced writers like H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula le Guin, and Neil Gaiman, who each in turn went on to affect future writers with their work. 

Dunsany died of an appendicitis in Dublin in 1957, but his work lives on.  Thanks to the wonder of the information age, you can download many of his stories that might otherwise have been lost, or found only in rare books.  The following quote from Dunsany establishes how well he understood the timeless power of the written word.

"And little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man's thoughts for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills."
--Lord Dunsany

(This site has a thorough biography and links to a Dunsany bookstore, while this site has interesting content about Dunsany and his fascination with chess.  The picture is from the Curtis Brown LiteraryAgency site, which also contains useful information.)


  1. I haven't been a prolific reader of fantasy and have not read Lord Dunsany but I certainly have read Lovecraft and Tolkien. As you point out they sometimes have a dreamlike quality. Certainly other forms of writing encompass descriptive methods that are so good you can visualize details and the surroundings very well. But with the fantasy authors, Lovecraft in particular, they seem to put me IN the setting. Complete with all the senses. There is a weighted sense of dread as I walk up to the decrepit mansion, I am startled when the creaky gate slams behind me, the setting sun is not providing the warmth it did when I had set out earlier that day, and the old man that answers the door has a voice not just words on a paper. Thanks for the introduction to Lord Dunsany.

  2. Mark, thanks for sharing. I don't think I've ever read any Dunsany, but I'll be looking for him now.

  3. Olaf and Tony, I appreciate the comments. I found some of Dunsany's five-book cycle beginning with Gods of Pegana online, but I'd really recommend trying some of his short stories first. A bit of searching will turn up several sources where you can download stories.

    Here's a link to one you may enjoy: